Returning to fitness after heart problems – Colin's story
Dealing with heart problems caused Colin Mallen to lose faith in his body. He tells Rachael Healy how he’s conquered his fears.
When Colin Mallen discovered he had heart problems 12 years ago, he vowed to keep doing his favourite activities. “I used to do a lot of exercise,” says Colin, 52, from Whitburn, Tyne and Wear. “I was quite competitive and did a lot of cycling, rock climbing and weights.”
Having coronary heart disease on top of life-threatening heart rhythms and unexpected complications, Colin’s been through more than most and returning to exercise was tough, physically and emotionally. However, with the support of his family and partner, Shirley, he’s conquered the toughest days.
Colin and Shirley have always stayed active together. “I met Colin 14 years ago,” says Shirley, 44. “I asked him out on a date because I noticed he was into fitness, which is what I’m into as well. We used to do a lot of running together, as well as walking, scrambling, climbing and cycling.”
Facing Colin’s illness strengthened his and Shirley’s relationship; last July, they married. Appropriately, their honeymoon was a two-week cycling tour of the Netherlands.
Back in 2003, Colin was out running when he collapsed and was rushed to hospital. Tests revealed a two-inch-long scar across the bottom of his heart, possibly caused by radiotherapy he received in 1997. He was discharged, but began regular check-ups. Five years passed without incident, until one weekend in 2008.
If it wasn’t for exercise, I think I would have struggled to fully recover
I was having Sunday lunch with my parents and my heart started racing,” says Colin. “They called an ambulance and I was taken to the local hospital where they gave me a cardioversion to get it back to the right rhythm. I was then advised to have an ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) implanted.
The ICD and a diagnosis of ventricular tachycardia (VT) – a potentially life-threatening fast heart rhythm – meant Colin had to reassess his lifestyle. “The doctor told me that rock climbing was out of the question,” he says. “I was a welder, but the welding would interfere with the ICD, so I couldn’t do that any more.”
Colin switched professions and is now a Mencap support worker, but didn’t want to give up on fitness. “A month after I had my ICD implanted, I went cycling with Shirley. It was activated and knocked me off my bike into some nettles,” he says. “That was a kick in the teeth; I must admit, I went through a period where I didn’t do a great deal.”
Colin was checked at the hospital and they changed the settings on his ICD. “After that, I was shocked a few times – all during exercise,” says Colin. “I was playing five-a-side football and it went off twice. I was exercising in the house and it went off six times.”
These incidents knocked Colin’s confidence. “I had counselling and they said that maybe this part of my life – serious exercise – was over,” he says. “I was really depressed because it was a massive part of my life; it was what I was all about.”
However, information from Colin’s ICD showed the device had not been triggered by abnormal heart rhythms. “The cardiologist said they were inappropriate shocks,” Colin explains. “The ICD was having more of an impact on my life than the actual heart condition.” Inappropriate shocks are a potential risk of an ICD, affecting 10–15 per cent of patients, but with the right medical care, the risk can be minimised.
Colin’s family were by his side through all of this uncertainty. “Shirley and my mother were a great support. If it wasn’t for them, I would’ve just given up and watched the telly every day. I couldn’t have got through it without them,” he says.
“I told him not to give up,” says Shirley. “But it was quite a struggle, because for a lot of patients like him, anxiety kicks in and they do give up.” In January 2012, Colin had surgery to remove the device. However, he started to experience chest pain on the cycle to work.
Hospital tests revealed a blocked coronary artery. Colin needed a stent procedure. “I didn’t feel in great health afterwards,” he says. “I was getting panic attacks and severe anxiety. Then, I was walking my dog on Boxing Day 2012, when I fell to my knees. They took me into hospital and discovered I was in VT again.”
Colin was advised to have a catheter ablation procedure in January 2013. Serious complications from this are rare, but happened to Colin. “Unfortunately, I was the unlucky one,” he says. “My ventricle was accidentally punctured and I had to have life saving open heart surgery. It was then a long recovery for four months.”
Road to recovery
You’re not defined by your illness. You’re an individual and you can get better
Shirley provided vital support while Colin recovered. “The winter of 2013 was quite severe and Shirley couldn’t drive. She used to get a bus, then a metro, then walk up to the Freeman Hospital through the snow, every day, for over a month,” he says. “It was tough, but it was something that I just did, because I was going there for someone I love,” says Shirley.
Back at home, Colin experienced panic attacks again and feared they were linked to his heart condition. A holter monitor, which recorded his heart rate and rhythm, showed this wasn’t the case.
Reassured, Colin began to regain confidence in his body. He attended a few physiotherapy sessions and then slowly began to exercise by himself. “I just got back on my bike,” he says. “I started climbing indoors again and did weights. I just gradually, gradually got fitter.
“I still get anxiety. I can be on my bike and do 200 miles and I’m absolutely fine, but I can walk around the block and get a panic attack,” he says. “But they are now few and far between, thankfully.”
On 22 August, Colin did the Newcastle to London bike ride to raise money for the BHF and found training was a helpful step to recovery. “If it wasn’t for exercise,” he says, “I think I would have struggled to fully recover.”
Shirley travelled to London to meet him at the finish line with a celebratory bottle of champagne. “You’re not defined by your illness,” she says. “You’re an individual and you can get better.”